There’s a certain wizardry about grilling. The magic of a low, slow fire — and a heady touch of smoke — transforms a simple rib-eye or portobello mushroom into mouthwatering fare.

It’s such a straightforward trick, yet there are so many tools and gadgets out there that what was once a simple act of barbecuing has become a tad intimidating. These days not only are there are smokers, gas grills and Weber kettles, but also wood planks, chips. charcoal chimneys, grill racks, salt plates, slider molds, asparagus grabbers and, of course, jalapeno racks to keep your peppers erect.

So there you are at the supermarket, hefting a baggie of apple wood chips and wondering, can you put wood chips in a gas grill? And how important are erect jalapenos, anyway?

You’d ask your neighbor, the barbecue king with his own professional-grade smoker, but that would be like asking Tim Lincecum for T-ball tips.

Fortunately, we’ve got someone better — because Ray “Dr. BBQ” Lampe is all about demystifying the art of the ‘cue. The Florida-based barbecue guru and serial cook-off champion has a new book out. And “Slow Fire: The Beginner’s Guide to Barbecue” (Chronicle Books, $22.95, 176 pages) answers nearly all those questions (though you’re on your own for proper pepper posture).

The new book is a deliberate departure from the classic barbecue how-to’s, which are typically penned by heroes of the pitmaster circuit with “brash personalities, huge egos and a room full of trophies,” Lampe says. “By the time you get through the ridiculous pieces of equipment that cost more than your car, it’s intimidating.”

The bottom line, he says, is that newbies shouldn’t run out and spend a lot of money on equipment they may end up using once. Use what you have, he suggests, experiment and then see if it’s a cooking technique you want to pursue with something more suitable — and more easily temperature-controlled — than the ubiquitous backyard gas grill, such as an old-school kettle barbecue, a smoker or even a stovetop smoker.

We tend to describe any kind of grilling as “barbecue, ” but real barbecue is cooked low and slow — with indirect heat and a bit of culinary restraint. “It’s not ‘if a little smoke is good, a whole lot should be better,”‘ Lampe says. “You can easily oversmoke food.”

Indirect heat means putting the fire on one side of the grill and placing the meat on the other, with a drip pan underneath. Temperature is key, 230 to 250 degrees is ideal — and the thermometer on the top of your shiny barbecue lid is useless. It reads the heat at the top of the lid, not an inch or two above the grate, where you’re cooking dinner.

“If you have it 240 on top, but the heat has risen, you might be trying to cook that meat at 160 degrees,” Lampe says. “You can cook on just about anything but you gotta learn the tricks.”

Some grills have a built-in drawer to hold wood chips, but the tried-and-true foil pouch works just as well, Lampe says.

That’s something about which Denis Kelly, the James Beard award-winning cookbook author and a St. Mary’s College professor in the integral studies program, fully agrees. Kelly has written three meat-related books for Williams-Sonoma, including “Williams-Sonoma Grilling,” and several cookbooks co-authored with Berkeley sausage king Bruce Aidells.

Kelly puts a handful of wood chips in the center of a 10-inch square sheet of heavy-duty aluminum foil, folds the foil around it and crimps the edges tightly. He then pokes holes in it with a skewer — Lampe’s a fork man — and drops it into the barbecue. You can soak the wood chips for an hour first, which slows the burning time, but just be aware that all that “smoke” pouring out is going to be steam for a while.

Don’t get too obsessed with the wood aspect, Lampe says: “The smoke is part of it, but the long slow cooking is it.”

And don’t — pardon the pun — bite off more than you can chew. The trick, Lampe says, is not to tackle a project that’s simply too big.

“Don’t try to cook a brisket for 14 hours the first time,” he says. “Do chicken quarters or pork chops, smoked fajitas where you use skirt steak. Stuff that takes one hour versus 12 hours.”

The shorter the project and the less intimidating, the more likely that you’ll do it again — and again. 


Servings: 6-8

Note: A “man steak” is an English term for a Fred Flintstone-esque cut of meat, typically cut from the rump.

One 6-pound “man steak” or large, hearty steak

¼ cup Four Seasons rub (see recipe)

1 tablespoon black pepper

Basting “brush” made of herb sprigs

Basic Baste (see recipe)

Board Dressing (see recipe)

Thyme-zinfandel salt or similar finishing salt

1. Preheat grill to medium low. Season beef all over with the rub and black pepper. Lightly moisten your hands and rub the seasonings into the meat. Let stand 10 minutes.

2. Put the beef on the clean, unoiled grate and cook, without moving it, for 1 minute. Turn, baste with the herb brush and cook 1 minute. Turn steak, baste again and continue to cook, turning and basting every 2 minutes, for 17 minutes. The meat may stick and tear a bit, but this is OK. Transfer to a platter and let rest 10 minutes.

3. Meanwhile, clean and oil the grate. Put the steak back on and cook, turning and basting every 4 minutes, until the internal temperature registers 115 degrees for rare.

4. Pour board dressing onto a cutting board (or mix it directly there). Finely chop the tips of the herb brush and mix into the dressing.

5. Season the steak on both sides with thyme salt, transfer to the cutting board and let rest 10 minutes.

6. Then slice the meat ¼-inch thick, turning each slice in the dressing to coat, and arrange on plates. Pour the board juices over the meat and finish with a sprinkling of thyme salt.

— Adam Perry Lang, “Charred & Scruffed” (Artisan, $24.95, 280 pages) 


Makes: 1 cup

1 cup sea or kosher salt

2 tablespoons freshly ground black pepper

2 tablespoons garlic salt

1 teaspoon cayenne

Combine all the seasonings. Transfer to a spice grinder; pulse to consistency of sand. Store in an airtight container up to 1 month.

— Adam Perry Lang 


Makes: 4 cups

Note: Recipe can be easily divided.

1¼ cups extra-virgin olive oil

10 tablespoons unsalted butter

1 tablespoon soy sauce

1 tablespoon sugar

2 tablespoons each grated garlic and red onion

1 tablespoon fresh thyme

2 teaspoons each kosher salt, fresh pepper

1 teaspoon red pepper flakes

¼ cup freshly squeezed lemon juice

Combine all the ingredients except the lemon juice in a 2-quart saucepan and bring just to a simmer. Remove from heat. Add lemon just before using.

— Adam Perry Lang 


6 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

2 tablespoons minced flat-leaf parsley

Sea salt, black pepper

Finely chopped tips of the herb basting “brush”

Optional: Grated shallots or garlic, balsamic vinegar

Mix ingredients and pour onto the cutting board where your grilled steak will be resting. To serve, slice the meat on the board, turning each slice in the dressing to coat.

— Adam Perry Lang 


Servings: 10

2 pounds skirt steak

2 limes, divided

Dr. BBQ’s Fired-Up Fajita Rub (see recipe)

1 large red onion, halved and sliced

1 green and 1 red bell pepper, halved and sliced

1 jalapeno, finely chopped

¼ cup olive oil

2 teaspoons kosher salt

10 8-inch flour tortillas

Sour cream, salsa, garnish

1. Cut the steak into 6 pieces. With a heavy meat mallet, pound the steak well to tenderize it. Squeeze the juice of 1 lime over 1 side of the meat. Season with fajita rub — heavily for rich, spicy meat, or lightly for milder meat. Let rest 5 minutes.

2. Flip the steaks and repeat with the second lime and the rub. Place steaks on a plate, cover with plastic wrap and chill up to 2 hours.

3. Prepare your cooker to cook indirectly at 235 degrees, using medium oak wood for smoke flavor.

4. In a medium aluminum foil pan, combine onion, bell peppers and jalapeno. Drizzle with olive oil. Toss with salt and 1 tablespoon fajita rub. Put the pan in the cooker and cook for 1 hour.

5. Wrap the tortillas tightly in foil and set aside.

6. Toss onions and peppers with tongs. Add the steak to the cooker in one layer. Cook 30 minutes more.

7. Toss the onion-pepper mixture again and flip the steaks. Put the tortilla package in the cooker. Cook for 30 minutes more.

8. Remove everything from the cooker. Tent steaks loosely with foil and let rest 5 minutes. Slice steaks thinly, against the grain, and add to the onion-pepper mixture. Toss well and serve with the warm tortillas, sour cream and salsa.

— Ray “Dr. BBQ” Lampe, “Slow Fire: The Beginner’s Guide to Barbecue” (Chronicle Books, $22.95, 176 pages) 


Makes: About 1 cup

Note: This big, bold, spicy rub is great for fajita and taco meat, where the tortillas will help mellow things out.

¼ cup kosher salt

¼ cup chili powder

1 teaspoon ground chipotle

1 teaspoon ground cumin

1 teaspoon onion powder

½ teaspoon garlic powder

½ teaspoon black pepper

½ teaspoon lemon pepper

¼ teaspoon cayenne

Combine all the ingredients in a medium bowl and mix well. The rub may be stored in an airtight container in a cool place for up to 6 months.

— Ray “Dr. BBQ” Lampe 


Servings: 4

Note: Cremini mushrooms are known as baby bellas.

1/3 cup crumbled blue cheese

2 slices bacon, cooked and finely chopped

2 garlic cloves, crushed

1 tablespoon panko breadcrumbs

¼ teaspoon black pepper

1 pound baby bella mushrooms or cremini

1. Prepare your cooker to cook indirectly at 235 degrees, using light apple wood for smoke flavor.

2. In a small bowl, mix blue cheese, bacon, garlic, breadcrumbs and pepper.

3. Twist the stems out of the mushrooms and scrape out the gills. Place the mushroom caps on a grill topper with the bottoms facing up. Spoon the blue cheese mixture into them.

4. Put the stuffed mushrooms in the cooker and cook for 1 hour, or until the mushrooms are tender. Serve hot.

— Ray “Dr. BBQ” Lampe 


Apple or cherry wood: These fruit tree woods are a great choice because they’ll add a little smokiness to your barbecue without overwhelming the meat. Pecan is a little stronger, but not too bad, Ray Lampe says, “if you don’t abuse it and put too much in there.”

Hickory or oak: These woods will give you that classic, smoked barbecue flavor, but if you’re not careful, the flavor can be overwhelming. Use two parts apple wood to one part hickory or oak, Lampe suggests. Too little smoke is still going to be good, he says, but too much smoke renders meat inedible. And standing in the smoke, tending the fire all day, desensitizes the cook to what constitutes too much.

Mesquite: Unless you’re a pro, mesquite or red oak is too strong for a smoker or closed grill. 


Barbecue sauce: As you slather it on the meat while it’s still cooking, remember the line between caramelized and burned is a fine one indeed. “Barbecue sauce can be evil,” Ray Lampe says. “I consider it a condiment, not the seasoning, not the marinade. At my house, it gets served on the side.”

Dry rubs: A great barbecue layers flavor, says Adam Perry Lang, author of the new “Charred &; Scruffed” (Artisan, $24.95, 280 pages), and the base coat is the rub, which can be as simple as salt, black pepper, garlic salt and cayenne.

Basting sauces: Using a bundle of herb sprigs to baste your meat — with olive oil, soy sauce, lemon juice and garlic, for example — adds even more flavor, Lang says, but make sure you baste after you flip, not before. Otherwise you’re breaking down the savory crust you’ve worked so hard to create.

Finishing touches: Lang finishes his steaks with a “board dressing” — a vinaigrettelike mixture that sits on the carving board, absorbing the meat’s juices as the steak rests. It’s spooned over the sliced meat before serving.


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